“I am preparing myself to forgive you,” says Johnny Depp, dramatically. “I think you’ve been punished enough.”
What heinous crime has ShortList committed to warrant such hard-fought absolution from one of the most famous men on the planet? Only to ask him for his favourite Withnail & I quote, which, as Uncle Monty devotees will already have spotted, he promptly provided, accent and all.
However, we’ve not waited up until the early hours for Depp’s transatlantic call simply to trade lines from cult films. The 48-year-old is phoning ShortList to promote his latest project — a big-screen adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s debut novel, The Rum Diary.
It’s been 13 years since Depp’s first celluloid flirtation with Thompson’s work, in the shape of the almighty Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. The Rum Diary, written a decade before Fear And Loathing but not published until 1998, finds the actor playing permanently ‘thirsty’ journalist Paul Kemp; another drink-and-drug-pickled, semi-autobiographical Thompson protagonist.
Replacing Terry Gilliam in the director’s chair for this adaptation is Withnail visionary Bruce Robinson (hence the Uncle Monty impression), whom Depp lured out of a 19-year retirement to write the screenplay and direct the film. Which results in our first question…
How did you manage to coax Bruce Robinson back to filmmaking?
I was a real pest [laughs]. I just kept coming at him. I understand someone who makes that decision and says, “I’m done with this cinema game and all those nasty bits that come with it,” but Bruce was my dream for The Rum Diary and he was Hunter’s too. So I had to pursue him until he kicked me in the mid-section [laughs].
Did he ever come close to doing that?
I don’t know [laughs]. He was initially reluctant, but once we’d talked about it a bit and he’d read the book a couple of times, he started to get a flavour for it. I’d always wanted to work with Bruce on something, but The Rum Diary was the ultimate. And then one day he just said, “You know, I think I’ll do it.”
You’re obviously a big Withnail & I fan. Have you got a favourite quote from the film?
Oh my God, there are so many. Well, certainly Uncle Monty. Oh, and then there’s the opening scene [adopts Withnail voice] “I have some extremely distressing news… We just ran out of wine.”
Is there a touch of Withnail about Captain Jack Sparrow?
Oh yeah, definitely. But Withnail, for me, is as great as cinema gets. It has every aspect you want. It’s hysterically funny, immensely quotable and there’s a great gravity to it as well. It’s a very poetic film. For me, it’s in the top three of all time.
What are the other two?
I’d say Time Of The Gypsies by Emir Kusturica and To Have And Have Not [Howard Hawks’ 1944 war romance].
Robinson famously told the teetotal Richard E Grant that he had to get drunk at least once in order to play Withnail. Did he take a similar approach with you on The Rum Diary?
Well, the thing is, both Bruce and I have a tendency with drinking to… Well, we’re both very good at it. He has a pretty hefty capacity and so do I, so we initially made a pact to stay completely sober. For the first couple of months we managed it, until one late night filming in Puerto Rico. It was boiling hot, a million degrees humidity. We were just about to finish for the night and we saw this little store across the street and we knew — we just knew — they had the coldest Coronas in the world in there. So, at that moment, we said, “All right, f*ck it. We’ve got to have a beer.” We downed about three each in a minute [laughs].
Did the boozing continue?
Yeah, but it wasn’t out of hand. We weren’t guzzling booze on set.
Is it true that you and Robinson nearly died while scouting locations?
Yeah. We were flying to Mexico to check out some locations and suddenly, somewhere over San Diego, the plane’s power went. Engine noise, everything — it just went. It was one of those moments where Bruce and I just locked eyes and went, “What the f*ck?” I think I literally said to him, “Wow, is this… it?” And then we both burst into hysterical, uncontrollable belly laughs.
Had you been drinking, by any chance?
We’d had some wine, yeah. And a few Coronas [laughs]. But it wasn’t a hallucinatory situation. It was really real. The power came back on, of course, but it was one of those things that nobody wanted to talk about until we were safely off the plane. But Bruce and I were laughing like infants the entire time.
There are some impressive stunts in the film involving fire-spitting and driving while sitting on another man’s lap. Did you perform those?
Well, I thought I was going to do the fire-spitting, but everyone came over and said, “No, no, that’s not happening. Not tonight, Johnny.” I figured I could have done it. But driving down those steps in the car — that was very real.
Were there any close calls?
Hell yeah! [Laughs] It was ugly. Especially as I was being dry-humped by a grown man while I was trying to steer.
Having worked so closely with Hunter S Thompson on Fear And Loathing, was it odd not having him on set this time round?
It was. But I had this cache of ammunition from my years with Hunter, living in his basement, going on the road with him as his… What did he call me? Oh yeah — “road manager and head of security”. And my name was Ray. People would go, “That’s Johnny Depp,” and Hunter would say, “No. His name is Ray.” [Laughs] So because I knew him so well, he’s easily accessible.
What’s your fondest memory of the time you spent together?
It’s difficult to pick just one, but that time alone with him, just the two of us — besides Deborah, his secretary, who basically kept us alive by feeding us vitamins and water — that was the greatest, because it was Hunter unguarded. So those evenings, sitting around, bullsh*tting about writers such as [F Scott] Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Nathanael West, those were my favourites. But even when I was 2,000 miles away, I’d get the occasional 3am phone call from him, saying things such as, “Colonel!” — he used to call me ‘Colonel Depp’ — “Colonel! Are you familiar with the hairy black tongue disease?” [Laughs] I’d be like, “What?” “Oh yeah, man. It’s a real thing. I’ve got some literature on it that I found at the dentist’s office. You gotta read about this hairy black tongue disease.” And you know, it is a real thing [laughs].
You must have had some wild nights out around the time of making Fear And Loathing…
Yeah, there was a time when Hunter did a gig at The Viper Room [the LA nightclub that Depp used to co-own]. We all met for dinner — me, Hunter and John Cusack came too. Hunter forced me and Cusack to get onstage with him, and he had this idea when we arrived that we should chuck a blow-up doll on the street so we could have the proper sound of screeching tyres outside.
Why did he want that?
He wanted chaos! [Laughs] So, he threw this blow-up naked woman doll into the road and there was this horrible commotion and screaming, tyres, going “Eeeeekkk!” And he just laughed, man. He just laughed.
Was that typical Hunter behaviour?
Oh, very. I remember the first night I met him. It was around Christmas ’94. I was asked to go to the Woody Creek Tavern [in Colorado] and wait for Hunter. So I’m sitting in the back of this joint and suddenly, at about 12.30am, the door bursts open and all I see is sparks [Thompson was carrying a Taser gun in his hand]. Just sparks. Then I see people hurling themselves on the floor, and I spot the safari hat and sunglasses and hear [adopts Hunter voice], “Out of my way, you bastards.” He cleared a path, walked straight up to me and said, “Good evening. My name’s Hunter.” From then on, we were the best of friends [laughs].
Do you find that certain characters, such as Fear And Loathing’s Raoul Duke, have stayed with you?
Yeah, it’s a weird thing. When I played Edward Scissorhands, I found a great safety in being that character, because there was nothing negative or malicious about him. So, I learned to look at everything almost through a puppy’s eyes. And when I was playing Raoul, I found safety in thinking and retaliating like him, through all that time I spent with Hunter. There are still times to this day when Hunter… arrives. Whenever I find myself in some ignorant situation, this kind of irreverence arrives in me that was a huge part of Hunter. He could be so irreverent and at the same time so deadly.
Let’s talk about your other famous characters. Your children must be forever insisting that you do the Jack Sparrow voice for them…
[Laughs] No, Captain Jack doesn’t do it for them any more. They’re so used to him now. I have to make them laugh with new characters.
Just anything to make your kiddie laugh, you know? Some of the characters I’ve done in the past were born literally out of playing Barbie with my daughter. And if [a new character] works, I think, “OK, I may put him in a drawer and use him again later.”
You recently worked with Ricky Gervais on Life’s Too Short — was that fun?
Oh my God, it was out of control. Everyone was trying to keep a poker face on the set and it just wasn’t happening. Stephen Merchant came closest, but Ricky and I were howling and so was Warwick [Davis]. We were all crying with laughter.
So there’s no bad blood between you and Gervais after his joke about The Tourist at the Golden Globes earlier this year?
No, no. I actually thought that was the funniest thing he said that night [laughs]. He’s a very talented guy and obviously he’s got his act, his thing. But he’s very clever and super quick.
As one of the world’s coolest men, do you have any guilty pleasures?
I wish I could tell you I watch those horrible reality shows or something, but I just can’t bring myself to. I don’t know… I like watching crime shows on TV.
Like The Wire?
No, like documentary, investigatory shows. Unsolved crimes. I can’t think of any other guilty pleasures, other than I’m a big fan of The Monkees’ song Daydream Believer.
That’s not a guilty pleasure — that’s a good song.
Oh, OK. Good. Thanks.
Do you still play your own music?
I get together and write music with friends occasionally. Music is still my first love, so it’s never anything I’ve abandoned.
You’ve worked with Keith Richards and Noel Gallagher — ever thought of forming a supergroup with them?
No, man, I’m not worthy [laughs]. But if things pop up, I’ll do them. Shane [MacGowan] called and asked if I’d play on something recently. I played on Patti Smith’s record. I love playing any chance I get.
Stephen Graham told us that he tried to make you a Liverpool FC fan on the set of the last Pirates Of The Caribbean film. Did he manage it?
[Laughs] Yeah, he tried, and our Liverpudlian stunt co-ordinator on [Tim Burton’s upcoming gothic drama] Dark Shadows has been trying, too. But I don’t really know enough about the sport — I haven’t seen many games. Although I did go to an England rugby match a while back. That was cool.
You must get spotted at events like that. What kind of things do fans say to you?
Little kids like to hear Captain Jack. But what really freaks them out is when you go from Jack to [adopts Wonka voice] “Willy Wonka” [laughs]. Suddenly, they’re like, “I’m not sure about this guy…”
The Rum Diary is at cinemas nationwide from 11 November
(Image: All Star)